Recalling the ’50s on the Hill, an Era of ‘Gracious Living’

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Uphill Both Ways?

Having grown up in a small Upstate New York town, attending Cornell broadened my horizons

By Joanne Wilson Wietgrefe ’54

A photo of Joanne Wilson Wietgrefe ’54

I graduated from a small Western New York high school in June 1950, and moved into Dickson Hall that September. Our first meal in the dining room was lunch—and it was there that I knew I wasn’t in rural country anymore.

Tables of eight women, all looking at their placemats—adorned with two forks, two knives, two teaspoons, and a soupspoon, along with the proper accompanying china pieces.

Women who were working for their board were the waitresses who took our orders and served us.

There were no written menus; everything was done by announcing the food and beverages. To order, the first woman gave her selection to the person on her right, then that woman repeated that order, and added her choices for the next person on her right.

And so on, around the table, until the eighth woman—whose memory must have been gigantically infallible—gave the string of orders to the waitress, who then remembered everything and related it to the kitchen. There were no order pads.

This system was used for appetizers, entrees, and desserts. So a typical table order for dessert might be: two apple pies, one ice cream, two eclairs, three chocolate cakes, three coffees, four teas, and one milk.

Joanne Wilson Wietgrefe ’54 in the Cornellian yearbook
Wietgrefe in the 1954 yearbook. (Provided)

If there were mistakes in relating what each woman wanted, it was immediately corrected by the person whose choice was stated incorrectly.

There was proper dining room decorum. You must fill in the head table first, this being where the Head Resident ate. She liked to make polite conversation while properly using her soupspoon, etc.

If you were sandwiching a gracious lunch between morning classes and an afternoon lab, this was the table to avoid at all costs.

Dressing for dinner was mandatory on the weekends; that meant stockings and heels.

We always sang the “Evening Song” on Saturday and the “Alma Mater” on Sunday. Sometimes when women attempted to bend the rules, two traitors were stationed at the doors to check for proper leg and foot attire.

Coming to Cornell expanded my world. I met a student who brought her horse to college with her so she could ride on weekends.

We attended teas to meet visiting dignitaries and had special events for certain holidays. I learned what matzo was—and that most experienced people ate it with butter and salt.

Coming to Cornell expanded my world.

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In my first foods lab, each student had to inventory her work station to ascertain that everything was complete. The girl across from me needed help: what exactly was a spatula, egg beater, grater, etc.? She had never been in her own kitchen.

I was shocked one February when a tearful girl announced her life was over. It was sorority rush week, and she didn’t get bids back to her anticipated choices—thus, she explained, her quest for the right kind of husband was made more difficult.

(The fact that someone would come to college to find a husband was not in my realm of possibility. After all, I had turned down a scholarship to another university because women weren’t allowed to take courses with men—and I couldn’t major in chemistry, because women could only earn BA degrees.)

A group photo of members of the Cornell Glee Club & Chorus in formalwear
Wietgrefe (second woman from left in second row) with fellow members of the A Cappella Chorus. (Provided)

For two years, my roommate and I lived in Balch on the courtyard, where we were treated to serenades: when a coed got pinned to a fraternity man—the step before engagement—the whole fraternity would come and serenade the intended future wife.

This era of gracious living extended to laundering our clothes, too. Just hang your laundry, with name tags sewn in, in a bag on your doorknob before bedtime, with the required laundry list; it would be magically returned three days later, clean and ironed.

(We washed our own unmentionables; we weren’t totally helpless.)

Throughout my years at Cornell, I felt privileged to be a student there. The University was my window into a wider world, and it gave me an ensuing obligation to share what talents I had with others.

As the saying goes: “She to whom much has been given, much is expected.”

Joanne Wilson Wietgrefe ’54 majored in home economics in Human Ecology. Her late husband, Walter Wietgrefe ’54, MS ’63, was a Cornellian, as are children Stephen Wietgrefe ’76 and Holly Wietgrefe ’83, MS ’86. She was an elementary school teacher for 25 years, among other professional and volunteer activities.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University

Published September 27, 2022


Comments

  1. Susan Brennan, Class of 1983

    This article provides a window into a Cornell that I never knew. It’s fascinating to consider how the world has evolved! Many thanks.

  2. Mai Duong, Class of 2010

    Mai Duong, MBA Class of 2010

    It is shocking to know that five decades after Marie Curie won a Nobel prize that women in some of the US colleges were still not ‘allowed’ to major in chemistry!

    My late mom graduated from college in the late 50’s in Vietnam, half a world from Cornell, but her rituals at meal time in her stories to me, are pretty the same with what I read here.

    Fascinating how society has changed.

    Thank you, Joanne Wilson Wietgrefe

  3. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, Class of 1950

    I was very interested in Joanne Wilson Wietgrefe’s column because I, too, came to Cornell from a small town: Monticello in the Catskill Mountains of NY State. But, somehow, until I read her column, I thought I was the only one. I graduated from Monticello High School in 1946 and came to Cornell that fall. I was very unhappy for the first three months at Cornell because I did not feel as if I fit in at all. I wanted to return home to Monticello but I couldn’t for two reasons (l) my parents had gone to Miami Beach, FL for the winter; and (2) I felt the entire town of Monticello would know I had failed. What I saw when I arrived Cornell were sophisticated young people, well dressed, and all seemed to know what they were doing and where they were going. I did not. I had never left home before: never gone to summer camp (since my parents themselves owned and ran a summer resort). And I had never before lived in a place where there weren’t many Jews. I remember hearing that one classmate of mine at Cornell thought Jews had tails. What Cornell did for me (among many other things) was open my life up to the variety of people in the world of all races and religions. And I never looked back. For a time, I was resentful that my life till then had been so circumscribed. But it never has been again. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, Class of 1950, email: spfuentes@comcast.net; website: http://www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes

  4. Adrienne Reing, Class of 1983

    Thank you for sharing these memories. This essay brought me so much joy. I had my own eye-opening experiences to the world when I left my small rural upstate town to attend this grand university, although 33 years later! Also I have been reading through journals and letters that I’ve found in my mom’s possession who recently passed, and these memories felt so similar. I loved this. Thank you.

  5. Sonia Pressman Fuentes, Class of 1950

    One thing Cornell didn’t prepare me for when I graduated in 1950 was the fact that employers weren’t hiring women college graduates. When I graduated Phi Beta Kappa (the first member of my family to have finished high school), I thought the world would beat a path to my door. But no such thing happened. Someone suggested I send a letter to the 200 top corporations in the US seeking employment. I did so, and did not receive a single response! Then, I went to business school and studied shorthand (I’d already taken typing in high school.) Upon achieving the proper speed in shorthand, I immediately secured a job. I remained a secretary for four years and then, when I realized I was getting no place face, I enrolled in the University of Miami (FL) Law School. Upon graduation from law school, my career took off. I became the first woman lawyer in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a co-founder of NOW (National Organization for Women), and have been involved in the struggle for women’s rights for the past 59 years. Sonia Pressman Fuentes; http://www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes

  6. Susan Mascette Brandt, Class of 1968

    I, too, came to Cornell from a small upstate town. Mine was a blue-collar industrial town populated at the time primarily by first and second generation Americans, mostly Catholics. My public high school never served meat in the cafeteria on Fridays and never held dances during Lent.

    I first arrived at Cornell in the Fall of 1964, got settled into my room in Dickson VI, and met my corridor-mates. Eventually, we all went to the dining room for dinner. Things were not as elegant in 1964 as Joanne described (meals were cafeteria-service), but we still sat at tables of eight with white table cloths.

    Dinner choices that evening, a Friday, were lamb and haddock, and I was absolutely stunned to see some of my new friends, who I had thought were very nice, ordering lamb! Now, being 17 and well-read, I knew that not everyone in the world was Catholic, but coming from my hometown, I honestly believed that everyone abstained from meat on Fridays out of respect for Catholics!

    One of the greatest parts of my Cornell experience was that it opened my eyes and my heart to the world.

    • Stephen Rolandi, Class of 1900

      Nice story, which I just saw on the inter-net. As an FYI, I had you for Legal Research and Writing at Brooklyn Law School in 1976-77.

      Best regards,

      Prof. Stephen R. Rolandi, MPA
      Adjunct Professor of Public Administration
      Larchmont, NY

      10-16-2022

  7. Michelle Amiri, Class of 2003

    I wish campus still had some of these traditions, like singing the song together at dinner. It’s so difficult to feel connected to our own contemporaries much less a part of the historical family. Just a few days ago I was struggling to name what the remaining Cornell traditions even were, much less how they were significant. As a first generation Cornellian, hearing these stories helps. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Ruthe Hewlett Gorman, Class of 1957

    I was a freshman at Cornell in 1953. Great article! My recollection is that we were all served the same food and were not given the choice the author talks about. Am I remembering wrong? Interesting that all the girls in the photo look so much older than the kids today. I came from a town on Long Island and it took me quite a while to “fit in” at a large university but I am glad I didn’t quit and go back home. I would have felt like a huge failure.

  9. Terrell E. (Terry) Koken, Class of 1962

    By 1958, when I arrived, many of the restrictions on women – but not all – had been lifted, or canceled as a result of what I remember as the Richard Farina riots, the year before I got there. “They’re stoning Malott, ’cause he’s banned you-know-what.” Curfews on women were still strict, and violations were excoriated, though in the next three years, they were more and more honored in the breach than in the observance. A woman I knew had a friend who stayed out all night with another woman, camping on an island in Beebe lake, and got busted for it; the censure laid on them was less severe than it would have been, though, had they had a couple of fellows with them.

    By three years later, the “sexual revolution” had begun, and twelve years after that, Roe v. Wade pretty much put paid to the old Victorian sexual mores. Of late, even the dorms are co-ed. The only real advantage of those outdated mores was that they taught young males to be polite and deferential to the elderly lady residents whose purpose it was to enforce them. We learned a lesson in manners there, though not much else.

  10. Caryl McAllister, Class of 1960

    A. Stratton McAllister (my husband) is at the top right and far left in the A Capella Chorus photo. The chorus was featured on five tracks on the 2021 Albion Records CD entitled RVW from America (RVW = Ralph Vaughan Williams). Stratton was the baritone soloist on the recording of “The Turtle Dove” with the chorus backing him up.

  11. Barbara Travis Osgood

    Although my memories are similar to the author’s, they are not nearly as sanguine. The goal for Cornell women in those days was, in the words of the administration, “to become educated wives and mothers”.
    While male students had few constraints, female students had many. We couldn’t wear pants on campus, could only attend “approved” parties, and had “hours” when we had to be in our dorms. Though I look back on those days with a bit of nostalgia, I am happy to have discovered the Women’s Movement in the 1970s. I returned to Cornell in 1975 for my PhD, and was very happy to experience Cornell under very different conditions.

    • Barbara Osgood

      For some reason the posting does not give my class: BS 1956, PhD 1980.

  12. Zena Saunders

    Would love to hear if any of you in the classes of the ’50’s knew my parents, aunts and uncles. My mother and aunts were in AEPhi, Lucille and Phyllis Fein, Burton Sculnick, Elaine Adler and Jerry Adler. My mom, Lucy, and RBG were sorority sisters and there are so many wonderful stories – of which I would love to hear more. All of our family continues to be Cornellians and my daughters, newly graduated are 4th generation. Thank you Barbara for writing in.

    Zena Saunders Schlossberg

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